By Rev. Leo Yates, Jr., LCPC
The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries of Global Ministries, a committee of the Global Health unit, recently approved several grants that will support churches in implementing ministries that support, empower, and include Deaf, hard of hearing, late-deafened, Deafblind, and persons with disabilities and their families in the life of the church. Most excitedly, churches receiving grants are connecting with and impacting their wider communities in innovative ways.
Being innovative and having spiritual gifts are themes that run throughout the Bible. The Apostle Paul shared with his faith community in Rome, not only about the gospel, but the importance of community. Paul wrote:
For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully (Romans 12:4-8).Creating innovative and vital ministries requires considering community context, community needs, individual and family needs, accessibility and barriers to worship and church participation, spiritual support, available resources, and more. It’s no different when implementing or expanding a Deaf ministry. Many seniors lose their hearing over time, with the result that they often become more withdrawn and isolated. When considering older members, those who often have been the consistent and larger givers that support the church, we often find that some begin to stop attending or lose motivation for coming due to problems communicating.
Orems UMCFor example, one of the recent grantees is Orems United Methodist Church in Middle River, Maryland. Their congregation is made up of young, middle-aged, and older people. Presently, their sanctuary has an assistive listening system (a loop system) that a few members use; however, with the grant they’re receiving in order to improve accessibility, part of the funding will purchase an FM assistive listening system, which is portable (and easy to use). This way, parishioners who prefer assistive listening devices can participate in events, such as the UMW meeting in the fellowship hall and in Bible studies in one of their Sunday School classrooms. Along with the FM system, Orems will utilize part of their grant funds to begin displaying captioning during worship, using the Otter AI system. Not only are they improving accessibility, they will be promoting their facility as a place for accessible worship, thus welcoming to their faith community nearby Veterans Affairs (V.A.) facilities. Though the heart of Orems’ grant request is for disability access, the congregation will be sensitized and educated about being inclusive and accessible of Deaf, hard of hearing, late-deafened, and Deafblind persons and their families.
LaPlaza UMCAnother example of community impact is seen in the grant provided to LaPlaza United Methodist Church, a Hispanic congregation, in Los Angeles, California. The congregation has a couple of older members who have some notable hearing loss. After consulting with the Committee on Deaf and Hard-of-hearing Ministries, the congregation considered making their faith community more accessible through the use of a new sound system, the use of captioning, and a new assistive listening system. Ways to promote Deaf awareness and accessibility were discussed with the Puerto Rican pastor, which led to the idea of connecting the church with a local housing agency. The church will provide funding, when needed, for Deaf and hard-of-hearing persons who have housing appointments (e.g. touring a new home or signing the lease), at which the church will partially pay for sign language interpreters through the local housing agency. Along with these, the pastor will be an unofficial ambassador for the committee and advocate for accessibility and share resources with other pastors and church leaders in her annual conference.
Emmanuel UMCStill another example is Emmanuel United Methodist Church, in Laurel, Maryland. Emmanuel has deepened the congregation's commitment to being more accessible and welcoming by adding a deacon to their staff. There is a specific focus on including people with disabilities and differing abilities. This hand of welcome is also extended to Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and late-deafened people and their families, as the worship service has a sign language interpreter. Part of their community outreach is connecting with a nearby assisted living facility, where there are some seniors and older adults who are beginning to or who already have some hearing loss. Extending their worship community to the assisted living facility is the heart of the relationship, along with recognizing the intersectionality of older adult ministries; moreover, they are supporting the facility with ways to improve communications with residents with hearing loss. For example, this includes providing sign language instruction and educating the facility about the use of assistive listening devices and captioning. Along with these, the church is promoting (disability) accessibility on their website and other social media outlets.
Myers Park UMCYet another example is Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Myers Park received a grant and began a interpreting ministry, which led to including the interpreter within their weekly worship services that are live streamed. It's a great way to promote the ministry before visitors arrive, while taking the additional step to make their live stream better accessible for Deaf and hard of hearing persons who may be a part of their online worshiping community.
Grace United Methodist ChurchAnother grant that was awarded was to Grace United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Bishop Peggy Johnson serves as the resident bishop. Johnson is known for her love for the Deaf community. "It's wonderful that Grace received this grant and are growing this ministry," said Johnson. Grace is hiring a Deaf or hard-of-hearing person to support and expand their Deaf ministry. This is the church's first time in hiring a Deaf person.
Reaching OutHistorically, the Deaf and Hard-of-hearing Ministries Committee has predominantly supported Deaf (signing) ministries, but it has made a concerted effort to reach out to the non-signing community who have hearing loss and need better accessibility so they feel welcomed and have a sense of belonging to their church. The work of Deaf ministries and disability ministries overlap in some ways, such as advocating for accessibility and inclusion. One clear distinction between the two ministries is that Deaf ministries wishes to grow ministries specifically with Deaf and hard-of-hearing persons, while disability ministries emphasizes the accessibility for all people, including people with hearing loss.
The Committee on Deaf and Hard-of-hearing Ministries has a monthly e-news (newsletter) for individuals and churches, which includes accessibility tips, Deaf ministry best practices, spotlights of churches with accessibility or Deaf ministries, intended to provide ideas, news, and resources. Contact Rev. Leo Yates, Jr., the committee's consultant, at firstname.lastname@example.org to subscribe to the free e-news or to discuss ministry needs and/or grant requests. The committee's web site includes a list of congregational resources with guides, bulletin inserts, brochures, and other recommendations (e.g. a list of free online sign language classes).
ConclusionAccessibility and inclusion of Deaf, hard-of-hearing, late-deafened, and Deafblind persons and their families continue to be a vital and shared focus of Global Ministries. The Holy Spirit is working with these ministries to be innovative in its work to grow the body of Christ. Implementing accessibility is important; moreover, community relationships where churches share hope with the wider community is what helps with the vitality of faith communities.
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